Al-Azhar and Educational Reform in the Thought of Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh

By Ibrahim Gemeah
Submitted to Session P4931 (Rethinking State-Society Relations in Modern Egypt, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
On December 11, 2016, a terrorist attack on the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral compound killed twenty-five Christian worshipers and wounded at least fifty-seven more. While ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, mainstream Egyptian media attributed this attack to the teachings of what they referred to as the stagnant and back-warded Islamic heritage being taught at al-Azhar University. According to them, it is al-Azhar’s curriculum and its teachings that promote hatred and enmity towards Christians and Jews. Thus, they strongly advertised for the Egyptian president’s call for Islamic reformation. Despite the calls for such reformation, few of those calls paid attention to the earlier attempts adopted by prominent Islamic figures like Shaykh Hassan al-Attar, Shaykh Rifa’a al-Tahtawy, and most importantly Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh. Al-Azhar itself, Egypt’s official Islamic institution and the world’s largest Sunni Islamic institution, ignored the work and efforts of these exceptional scholars for the past four decades or so. In fact, on November 1, 2016, a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy at al-Azhar University was suspended and accused of atheism for adopting the thoughts of Muhammad ‘Abduh, who was once Egypt’s top Mufti (jurist) and is considered the father of Islamic reformation.

Hailed as the Pioneer of modern thought in Egypt, this paper presents a detailed study of Muhammad ‘Abduh’s efforts in reforming education, specifically at al-Azhar. It aims to provide a detailed overview of his uneventful experience as a student at al-Azhar, by explaining the challenges and the excessive shortcomings that forced him to skip school as a student. It will then explain his later endeavors as a state official to improve and reform the institution’s educational process and its policies, which he once resented as a student. This includes his attempts to reform the entity’s curriculum, pedagogy, and administration. The paper will finally analyze the different forms of oppositions ‘Abduh faced from both the government and the conservatives at al-Azhar, which eventually put his reform efforts to rest.